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[en] Genealogy of Fifth Generation Fighters
« Online: 29 de Julho de 2006, 11:37:21 »
Created: 22.06.2006 14:37 MSK (GMT +3), Updated: 13:49 MSK


The more talk there is about fifth-generation fighters, the more often the question arises: what exactly is a fifth-generation fighter? A special report from traces back to the roots of this highly sought after aircraft.

The fourth generation of jet-propelled fighters came out in the late 70s, but towards the start of the 80s waned a bit. After lagging behind for 10 years, the re-equipping of the air forces of leading world countries is picking up. The U.S. is the pace setter in the arms race as it was the first country to commission state-of-the-art fighter jets, leaving other leading aircraft producers behind. The more talk there is about fifth-generation fighters, the more often the question arises: what exactly is a fifth-generation fighter? What kind of identifying characteristics must an aircraft possess in order to be considered to be among aircraft of a new type? In general, how do technological features assign an aircraft to one generation or another?

The first generation, developed in the mid to late 40s, lasted a relatively short period of time. As opposed to the prop planes from the end of World War II, the first jet-propelled aircraft differed by means of their engines, with speeds of more than 150-200km per hour and “working” ceilings of 13-15,000m, rather than 10-11,000m--which was noticeably worse than that of the maneuverable jet-propelled planes. Weapons and target-navigation equipment remained practically just as before: 2-3 cannons or 4-6 heavy-caliber machine guns and an optical sight. The most famous and characteristic aircraft of the first generation are the MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre. The altitudes for dog fighting during those times did not exceed a few hundred meters and the combat that raged over Korea--in which the jet-propelled aircraft first flew--barely differed from the air combat of WWII. With time the capabilities of the aircraft improved, and the last models of the first generation fighters — such as the MiG-19 or the F-100 Super Sabre — reached supersonic speeds. In addition, the family of first generation aircraft was modernized, and received radars and guided missiles.

Jet-driven fighters of the second generation came on line in the mid 50s, initially drafted as aircraft exceeding the speed of sound by 1.5-2 times (maximum speeds reached the force of 1800-2200km per hr), equipped with radar tracking devices and “air-to-air” missiles with thermal (infrared) and self-guided warheads. Missiles and radar were able to compensate for the boost in speed as they increased the distance to target, thus allowing the pilot enough time to have a plan of action. At that time, during the universal frenzy for missiles, guns were vanishing from airplanes as they were becoming outdated across the board. The advancement of military aircraft was striving to reach the fastest maximum speeds and highest altitudes possible. The brightest examples of the second generation — the MiG-21 in the USSR, the Mirage-III in France, and the F-104 Super Starfighter in the U.S. — were in service for many years in the air forces of dozens of countries; and moreover, the MiG and Mirage are still in production to this day.

Aircraft of the second generation did not become overly massive, like those produced by design bureaus and aviation factories — fighters of the third generation. The rise in cost of fighters, already noticeable at that time, demanded the production of multipurpose jet-driven aircraft. The ability to conduct various missions as well as the quest for air superiority to attack ground targets with the help of guided weapons became the distinctive characteristic of aircraft of the new generation. The increase in capabilities of fighters occurred thanks to improvements in electronics--powerful, compact radars and optical systems were available for distribution in airplanes. The increased weight of the new aircraft was compensated for by the emergence of powerful, efficient engines.

The F-4 Phantom II and MiG-23, created in the early and late 60s respectively, are considered to be the most remarkable aircraft of their time; but the third generation created an entirely new branch of specialized aircraft, due to the presence of powerful and multi-faceted target navigation equipment and corresponding missiles. Grouped along with such aircraft are the MiG-25 interceptor, and the Su-24 and “Tornado” strike aircraft.

The third generation was still created during the time of heightened enthusiasm of missile weaponry, and originally new aircraft carried nothing except for multipurpose missiles. During the time of their design, air combat resulted in the solution to a mathematical equation — the speedy intercept of a target with low-maneuverability by means of a low-maneuvering missile. But the 10 year Vietnam War and Arab-Israeli conflicts demonstrated to everyone that such a notion was a mistake. Loaded with ammunition, the multipurpose “Phantoms” of the third generation could not fly at supersonic speeds and became victims of the maneuverable MiG-17-fighters of the first jet-driven generation with traditional weaponry. MiG-21s, belonging to the second generation and differing on account of their powerful engines and light weight, good maneuverability and high speeds, became even more dangerous opponents for the virtually straight flying strike fighters. Once again, when battles flared up above the Sinai Peninsula — the MiG-21 and Mirage-III demonstrated that high flying was written off early.

As a result, the fourth generation of jet-driven fighters was created on the basis of a series of compromises. The fighter had to maintain a high speed — not less than twice the speed of sound at high altitudes — and have the capability of penetrating anti-air defense systems at ultra-low altitudes and at near-sonic speeds. Its flight characteristics had to allow the conducting of dog-fighting maneuvers while firing guns and missiles at close range. The fighter’s radar had to have the capability of simultaneous tracking and weapon navigation of several targets within a line-of-sight distance. The American fighters F-15, F-16, F-18, the French Mirage-2000, and the Soviet MiG-29 and Su-27 became “heroes of our time”. The speed and altitude characteristics of the multipurpose fighters of the new generation did not grow, and occasionally several even decreased. The speed record was held by the specialized interceptor MiG-31, which was unequipped for the maneuvers of air combat, but suited for the fourth generation on account of its all-powerful radar tracking system.

Along with the growth of possibilities for fighters, the change of generations was characterized by the constant refinement of air navigational systems. Fighters of the first generation were directed from the ground by radio on the basis of information obtained from ground-based radar tracking systems or visual sight; fighters of the second generation already had individual radar tracking and could navigate with its help, as with the help of the ground-based radar tracking on an automatic setting. Fighters of the third generation received the capability to interact immediately with several navigation stations and with planes equipped with airborne early warning. The fourth generation expanded these capabilities thanks to multi-channel radars and the internal navigation of planes in formation. The aircraft became a part of the air-to-ground complex, responsible for the detection, escort and destruction of targets.

Work on the fifth generation of jet-driven fighters began in the early 80s, and questions immediately arose as to which design precisely defined the fifth generation. The issue soon turned philosophical rather than technical, but it took about 15 years to work out. The U.S. defined the characteristic identifiers of fifth generation aircraft as reduced radar tracking signature and supersonic cruising speed. The USSR added quality of high-maneuverability to this list. One thing that all participants in the process agreed on was that the fighter must have radio tracking equipment, enabling it to zero in on targets not only in the forward hemisphere, but also in the rear hemisphere. And, perhaps, the most characteristic identifier of the fifth generation fighter is the highest level of integration of the aircraft in the structure of the air-to-ground complex.

Great possibilities, which the on board equipment of the fifth generation aircraft affords, can be completely realized only by the presence of corresponding information, supplied by various channels of communications from dozens of sources — from AWACS aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft, ground navigation systems, fighters-neighbors in the group etc. In absence of a congruous structure, made up of dozens of air and ground elements, a significant part of the potential of fifth generation aircraft simply will not be realized, and money wasted on the purchase of such high-end fighters will be tossed in the wind. As a result, fighters of the new generation will be practically of no use to developing countries--incredibly expensive by themselves, as they will require special support systems which developing countries simply cannot afford.

If we look at different aircraft that fit the proposed set of criteria, we can note only three of all aircraft designed in the 90s: the already produced F-22, the still experimental F-35/JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) and the Soviet produced I-21, which is anticipated in the next year. Neither the Rafale, nor the Eurofighter, nor the Gripen are considered to be fifth generation aircraft. Just as the last aircraft of the Su-27 and MiG-29 platforms, the multipurpose aircraft of the 4+ generation, are aircraft valued not for what they are by themselves, but for being a part of the most complex combat system.


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